The plight of Pa.’s volunteer fire companies can look bleak. What are the solutions?

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Sounding the alarm: Fire departments in crisis

Volunteer fire departments across the country have fewer members than ever before. While still vital to our communities, the culture of fire departments has changed in Centre County. The departments are also tasked with rising costs and increased demands on their members. “Sounding the alarm,” a multipart series from the Centre Daily Times, explores the unprecedented challenges facing these departments.

The outlook may appear daunting for Pennsylvania’s volunteer fire companies, saddled with years of financial and staffing struggles.

But some departments are finding ways to reverse the trend. The Gregg Township Fire Company gained around two dozen new members — nearly 80 percent of the total crew — after a change in leadership, Chief Scott Breon said.

The total number of volunteer firefighters statewide has fallen nearly 90 percent since the 1970s, according to the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute.

“We’re trying to rebuild and trying to get people interested,” Breon said.

His company’s volunteers range in age from the early 20s to mid-50s, with some former firefighters returning now to help out, he said.

Not all of the members run fire calls; some assist just with fundraising and social support. But all are welcome, Breon said.

Gregg Township Fire Department volunteers organize stacks of hoagies they made for their hoagie sale on Jan. 31. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

It didn’t used to be like this. About 18 months ago, on a good day, seven volunteers might respond to a call when the pager went off.

That’s part of what drew Breon, who started his fire career at the Port Matilda Fire Department, to the Gregg Township company three years ago.

“The fire whistle went off one day ... and nobody was showing up. And I was like: ‘Oh, my gosh — these people need help,’ ” he said.

But the company isn’t immune to the financial problems other departments face. Firefighters are lobbying the township for a fire tax of some sort, Breon said.

“Every municipality gives their fire company some sort of money in this county,” he said. “I said at the town hall meeting (in December) that we were the last remaining company in the county to not have the fire (protection) tax.”

Gregg Township Supervisor Keri Miller has said that implementing a fire protection tax might not be the best solution, though.

“We tried implementing an LST tax this year (for EMS), and what we found ... people were less likely to do the membership for the EMS because they were already feeling like, ‘You’re taking our money anyway,’ ” she told the Centre Daily Times earlier this month.

The township does pay about $30,000-$35,000 per year to the fire company for workman’s compensation, she said.

Gregg Township is dealing with an ailing pumper from the early 1990s that has twice malfunctioned on major fire calls, and the company called an emergency meeting to deal with it. Volunteers settled on a short-term fix but differ over whether the company can afford to buy a new engine for over $150,000 or work with what it has.

Multiple fire companies were called to help with water to fight the fire at 147 Mountain Spring Lane in Potter Township on Jan. 30. Gregg Township’s engine water pump failed and could not provide water to help put out the fire. Abby Drey Centre Daily Times, file

Finding solutions

A state commission spurred by the General Assembly laid out 24 recommendations to improve the commonwealth’s fire and emergency medical services in a 2018 report.

Many of the recommendations address entrenched issues of volunteer burnout, training constraints and funding.

The report includes proposals to pay for basic firefighter and emergency medical training for all first responders statewide, create a state fire commission and foster the regionalization of fire and emergency services.

In an extensive section on how to modernize recruitment and incentivize volunteerism, the report’s ideas include:

  • developing a statewide program that would promote recruitment and retention
  • pursuing credit at the high school and college levels to encourage volunteer first responders

  • promoting free tuition and tuition assistance at community colleges and state-system universities for active first responders

Meanwhile, Centre County volunteer firefighters’ relief associations, which support fire companies with training and equipment, received almost $850,000 last year. The money that each relief association receives comes from a 2 percent tax on premiums for casualty and fire insurance sold in Pennsylvania by out-of-state insurance companies.

“These funds will benefit communities statewide by helping to purchase life-saving equipment, fund critical training and provide insurance for thousands of volunteer firefighters and emergency service providers,” state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale in a statement.

Matt Hymowitz CDT graphic

The tax model

For some, the answer is a municipal, tax-funded department, similar to the structure of Alpha Fire Company. The company focuses on the Centre Region, with its service area covering State College borough; Penn State; Patton, College and Ferguson townships; and parts of Benner and Halfmoon townships. Each municipality pays into the Centre Region Council of Governments based on assessed property value, population and earned income taxes, said Steve Bair, CRCOG fire director and Alpha chief.

Alpha operates with all volunteers, but the CRCOG fire leadership is paid. The Centre Regional Fire Protection Program is made up of CRCOG career staff, Alpha Fire Company volunteers and the State College Fireman’s Relief Association, Bair said. Alpha also relies on contributions and goodwill gifts from the community, he said.

But talk to many fire companies, and they’ll say that the Centre Region model is just not possible with what their municipalities would be able to pay. Philipsburg Fire Department gets money from all the municipalities it serves, but Assistant Chief Justin Butterworth said it’s not enough to keep up with costs in a meaningful way.

“I don’t think it’s possible with the way the system’s set up now,” he said. “With there being so many fire companies that are each operating as their own individual (entity) ... some communities could afford it. Most in rural Pennsylvania couldn’t afford it.”

Howard Fire Department volunteers load hoses onto the engine during a work night on Jan. 24. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Tim Sharpless, chief of the Mountain Top Fire Company in Sandy Ridge, said municipalities and the state government need to work together on the funding issue. He advocates a municipal fire tax.

“We have people in our town that bake for our bake sales ... (and) then there’s the guys living next door who do absolutely nothing” to support the fire company, Sharpless said. He called that “not fair or right.”

Talks with Rush Township supervisors about raising taxes to contribute to a fire tax haven’t gotten anywhere, Sharpless said.

“I think at some point, they’re going to have to realize, it’s their responsibility to help with a solution,” he said.

Mark Ott, president of the Howard Fire Company, took a similar stance.

“I think the municipalities need to realize what a service we’re providing at a very cheap rate for them, step up and start putting some money in, and the taxpayers need to realize that, too,” he said.

Ott plans to recommend that the Curtin Township supervisors introduce a referendum for a 1 mill tax increase to support the fire company.

A sign outside of the Howard Fire Department reads,”Help wanted, odd hours, no pay, sweet helmet, apply here.” Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Sweetening the deal: incentives for volunteers

Many fire company volunteers support incentives for their ranks.

Nick Fisher, a 21-year-old volunteer with Howard, said he would like to see incentives like “more money at end of year, or maybe paying less on taxes in the township or something.”

These days, he said, younger people have less interest in volunteering because they don’t want to put time into an activity that doesn’t pay.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I wouldn’t enjoy getting extra money at the end of the year (for running all these calls),” Fisher said. “But at the same time, I’m not going tell you I’m going quit because, oh, they won’t pay me. It would just be a reward for giving back.”

Butterworth also supports a state-led, incentive-based program for volunteer firefighters. Act 172 of 2016, which lets Pennsylvania municipalities offer a tax credit to active members of volunteer fire companies and nonprofit EMS agencies, was a step in the right direction, he said.

But many volunteer fire departments, like Gregg Township, are so busy with the day-to-day operations that they don’t have much time to dedicate toward implementing incentive programs.

“We haven’t done (incentives) yet. I’d like to talk to the township about that,” said Breon, the fire chief. “ ... I’m a firm believer ... that volunteers should be rewarded in some way, somehow.”

Like many other fire companies, the two Philipsburg companies — Hope and Reliance — have begun fundraising efforts that are as much about embedding themselves in the communities as they are about raising funds.

Matt Rebmann helps make chocolate covered strawberries for the Hope Fire Company Valentine’s Day fundraiser on Feb. 12. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Butterworth hopes those pushes will form incentives for community members to join the fire department.

There’s an event for every season. At Halloween, firefighters hand out free hot dogs. At the Christmas celebration in Philipsburg, volunteer firefighters sell hot chocolate and sponsor a few local families for the holiday season. For Valentine’s Day, volunteers hand dip chocolate covered strawberries to sell. And in the spring comes March Money Madness, with a chance to win several cash prizes.

“We try to get our hands in the community … not only because we feel it’s our duty to give back to the community that supports us, but to show people that there’s other things that we do that maybe interest other people to join and look into us,” Butterworth said.

What’s next?

But what do all of these concerns mean for the communities that depend on volunteer fire companies for help? What is the cost of not addressing these issues?

“I think there’s going be a lot less companies out there,” Ott said. “If Howard Volunteer Fire Company went out of business, then our municipalities would have to go to Beech Creek and Milesburg and say, ‘Will you cover us?’ ”

Residents could lose services close to them, pushing emergency response times up, said Ott.

“I guess the public has the same image that a lot of the municipal heads say,” Sharpless said. “As long as (people) see the fire truck going down the road, there’s no problem. There is a problem, and it’s not going to go away without some major help.”

Fire instructor Tim Archer talks to his class as they learn about fire extinguishers at the Centre County Public Safety Training Center in Pleasant Gap on Jan. 17. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

That help could come in the form of more volunteers, incentives for volunteers and more money from municipalities and the state.

“We’re unique in that if we don’t have somebody, somebody’s life or livelihood might depend on it,” Sharpless said. “We have to provide that service.”

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Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.